Cooking in somebody else’s kitchen

The evening of New Year’s Day, I was playing D&D. And since I was at the host’s house pretty much all day, I decided it might be nice to have some baked goods for the game. Specifically, chai gingerbread bars, because the host had indicated that he likes them, and I aim to please.

Now, this is a recipe that I’ve made quite a number of times, am quite comfortable with, and figured it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, except for one small thing: my friend isn’t a baker.

Among the ingredients he did not have:
– flour (all-purpose or whole wheat)
– any of the spices except cinnamon
– brown sugar
– vanilla extract
– non-stick spray (vital to working with this recipe’s very sticky dough)

There was some baking soda in the fridge that my friend was worried was no longer good, but a quick test (put baking soda in a glass with some vinegar and see if it becomes a mini-volcano) revealed that it was still fine, so at least that was one thing we didn’t need to worry about.

For the rest, we wound up finding a tiny bag (1 kg) of all-purpose flour and some brown sugar at the convenience store in his building, and — on a tip from a friend — I used rum instead of vanilla extract. (Truth be told, I used a bit too much, because I couldn’t figure out how the damn bottle poured.) We doubled-up on the chai to counteract the lack of other spices, so things were mostly okay on the ingredient front.

Then I realized we were also missing quite a number of tools I take for granted. There was no kitchen scale, which I’d kind of figured would be the case and didn’t mind too much. I brushed off some old knowledge to measure the butter, i.e. using water displacement in a liquid measuring cup. There were measuring spoons, which was good, but (and here’s the kicker) no dry measuring cups. Eventually we found one that was 125 ml, which is close enough to a half-cup that I could make it work, but I was flabber-boggled.

There wasn’t a stand mixer, which is fine; I’m used to making most of my baked goods by hand anyway. There was one large mixing bowl and one that was just big enough to hold the dry ingredients if I didn’t stir too vigorously. I greased the pan with some of the extra butter.

The pan. Oh, yes, I should mention the pan. See, this recipe is meant to be made in a 9×13 pan. My friend didn’t have one. What he had instead was an 8×8 casserole dish with high walls. I had no idea how this would affect cooking time or outcome, and it didn’t help that we also didn’t have an oven thermometer. (“Why would I think the temperature was anything other than what’s listed on the dial?” asked my friend.)

So anyway: the dough looked okay. We put it in the casserole dish. We set the dial on the oven to 350, waited a while, and then put it in. I turned it at around 13 minutes, and then checked again at 25 — not done, but the top was starting to brown quite alarmingly. Brushing off more cobwebbed cooking skills, I took some tin foil and put it over the top of the dish. Put it back in for 5 minutes, then 5 more, then 5 more.

The damn thing refused to be done. It always seemed like it was almost done, and sometimes it seemed that parts of it were done and other parts weren’t, but it was never entirely done. I had the casserole dish in the oven for over an hour, and it still refused to be ready.

After a while, I figured out that the tin foil over the top of the dish was causing the crust on top to start turning mushy in the middle, so I took over the foil, let it bake for another five minutes, and then took it out.

It was fine… for about five minutes, when the top collapsed, revealing that the inside was absolutely not done yet. I started to become seriously frustrated and annoyed. My friend, bless him, came up with a solution I wouldn’t have: mash the whole thing up and then put it back in the oven for a few minutes until it finishes baking. Which is what I did.

In the end, it turned out very tasty, though it was more of a crumble than bars. We served it over ice cream, and it was well received, so I’ll count this one as a net win. It certainly was a test of my kitchen improvisation skills, and I take it as a mark of my increasing comfort as a baker that I was able to improvise so much with what I had on hand. It also made me appreciate all the more my own very well-stocked kitchen. Next time I do baking, I’ll just bring it over. 🙂

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